National Geographic : 1946 Nov
Market and Wharf at a Roman Port THE NEAR EAST today perpetuates the bazaar, where in a single street or under a single roof are grouped all the competing dealers in a commodity. From such bazaars, still to be seen in Athens, Istanbul, or Tunis, this Roman covered market differs little except for the architectural vast ness of the brick-faced and plastered-concrete vaults thrown over the line of shops by the imperial builders. Daylight from high overhead streams into the dark, cool niches where the lanternmakers, cutlers, coppersmiths, and other metalworkers display their wares. At the end of the broad central public way, the whole vault is left open to admit light and air. Such a market can still be seen in Rome amid the ex cavated ruins of Trajan's Forum in the heart of the city. If it were built to take advantage of the proximity of the warehouses and landing stages of a seaport, instead of the tall buildings of metropolitan Rome, it might open on paved quays and jutting wharves against which the sailing cargo vessels would be moored stern first. The bales and bundles are strewn about, waiting for the porters and carters, who are asleep or idle during the heavy heat of midday. In the sunlit open, a chance crowd of shoppers has gathered to watch a mountebank girl perform her juggling act. Such quays, paved with slabs of marble, were common to the larger maritime cities in the Greek East and the Roman West of the Mediterranean. For Rome itself, Ostia was the port; and here a magnificent harbor town sprang up, with capacious storehouses for the grain on which the lower classes depended. Therewere market places, open and covered, baths and a theater, temples and shrines, and brick apartment houses many stories high, with overhanging bal conies giving them an almost modernistic appearance. In another mouth of the Tiber, close by,Trajan con structed a supplementary harbor. This was agreat sheltered basin with wharves and docks protected bymoles and break waters marked by a lighthouse toward theopen sea. The Mediterranean economy depended principally on grain, oil, and wine. Sincewine had tobeaged, areserve could be stored to carry over bad vintage years; and the hardiness and long life ofthe olive trees ensured asupply of oil. Grain, more perishable and rapidly consumed, was the most precarious factorinRoman economic and, conse quently, political life. The Romans fell heir toahighly organized system of exchange of goods whichthey exploited and expanded through every corner of their inland sea. Under theEmpire, caravans brought rugs out ofPersia and even silk outof China. A fleet sailed annually toCeylon and perhaps to India, bringing back gemsand spices and other rarities up the Red Sea and thence bycanal tothe Nile and Alexandria. The Suez Canal thus had apredecessor which had been opened first under the ancient Pharaohs. Ithad been kept open with extreme difficulty,however, and was hardly ofany commercial importance except for afewcenturies under Roman rule. It would beanexaggeration tosaythat it ever represented the "lifeline ofempire" fortheRomans of Italy; yet the parallel withBritish imperial trade isthere.